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Do reviews affect the box office for European films?

Reviews are key to the marketing of European films. But how to they affect box office performance? Huw Jones investigates.

Reviews generally make little difference to how films perform in the box office.

When the latest Transformers movie came out last summer, for example, it was universally panned by critics, receiving an average rating of just 18% on the Rotten Tomatoes website. Yet it still took over $1 billion worldwide, becoming the highest grossing film of 2014.

However, for more specialised cinema, including most European films, reviews are seen as key baits to attendance.

levitan

The poster for Andrew Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan includes several four- and five-star ratings as well as choice quotes from film critics.

Distributors know the core audience for these films tend to be well-educated and highly cultured individuals who are more likely to be drawn into cinemas by the promise of well-crafted scripts, convincing performances and stylish directing than big budget special effects or Hollywood stars. That is why their marketing places great emphasis on four- or five-star ratings and choice quotes.

But to what extent do good reviews actually boost the box office performance of European films?

To find out, we examined how over 600 European films released in the UK between 2007 and 2013 were rated on two leading review aggregator websites: IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.

Excluded from our analysis were English language films and children’s animations, which draw a more mainstream audience than most European titles.

We could also find IMDb ‘Metascores’ for only 60% of the films in our dataset, while 83% had a Rotten Tomatoes ‘Tomatometer’ scores.

Nevertheless, this still gave us a healthy sample of between 269 and 369 films to work with.

The best (and worst) of European cinema

Top critically acclaimed films

Top 10 rated European films released in the UK, 2007-13

IMDb’s top European title turned out to be Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), followed by the Romanian drama 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Carlos (2010), about the Venezulean revolutionary Carlos the Jackal.

Meanwhile, Rotten Tomatoes rated Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Harve (2011) and the documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2011) equal first, with 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Swedish horror Let the Right One In (2008) and Norwegian drama Oslo August 31st (2011) tied in second place.

Bottom critically acclaimed films

Bottom 10 rated European films released in the UK, 2007-13

At the other end of the spectrum, the French romantic comedy Paris Manhattan (2012) was the worst film in IMDb’s eyes, followed by action drama Special Forces (2011) and Romain Gavras’s Our Day Will Come (2010). Rotten Tomatoes also panned Special Forces, along with German biopic The Red Baron (2008) and the provocative French drama Elles (2012), starring Juliet Binoche.

The two aggregators agreed with each other 78% of the time: 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days was the overall favourite while Special Forces was the least popular film (though Rotten Tomatoes was more damming of the latter than IMDb). This consensus is perhaps unsurprising, since there is undoubtedly some cross-over between the critics used on both websites.

The impact of review

So do good reviews influence the box office performance of European films?

Yes, but only to a very small degree. Regression analysis shows there is a significant relationship between a film’s IMDb and its UK box office (p=0.003), yet this only explains about 3% of the variance in admissions, suggesting there are much bigger factors at play. The same is true if we use Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer score (p=0.036), though here the variance (1.3%) declines even further.

Put simply, some of Britain’s most popular European imports - Coco Before Chanel, La Vie En Rose or The Intouchables – have received fairly average reviews, while more critically-acclaimed titles such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or Carlos have flopped in the UK box office.

There is no space here to go into all the other possible factors which explain why some European films perform better in the UK than others, but it is worth noting there is often a big difference between how critics rate these films and what regular audiences think of them.

For example, IMDb’s users were fairly lukewarm about Claire Denis’s critically acclaimed 35 Shots of Rum, giving it 70% (7.0 out of 10) compared to the critics’ 92%, but were much more enthusiastic about the French comedy drama The Intouchables, scoring it 86% (8.6 out of 10) compared to the critics’ 57%.

Similarly, Rotten Tomatoes’s users hated the French documentary Back to Normandy (2007), giving it only 25% compared to the 84% of reviewers who liked it, while the critically-panned Special Forces mustered a respectable 53% amongst audiences.

Overall, audiences and critics on IMDb agree 55% of the time and Rotten Tomatoes 56% of the time.

This helps explains why reviews have only a limited impact on the UK box office performance of European films: the things professional critics appreciate are not always the same as what audiences are looking for.

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